Michael Boling – A Form of Godliness: Fasting, Social Justice and the Sabbath: An Exposition of Isaiah 58:1-14


Exposition of the Text

The pericope of Isaiah 58:1-14 is an exhortation-laden oracle denouncing Israel’s lack of spiritual perspicuity and their penchant to acquiesce to pagan cultic rituals as a method to coerce God into action. Through the prophet Isaiah, God declared that a complete dénouement to such behavior was a precursor to the renewal of a covenant relationship with their Creator. If Israel was to experience the benefits and blessings of the covenant, a cessation of a form of godliness was in order. True godliness, according to Isaiah 58, must evince a concern for the poor and downtrodden, a rejection of selfish motives, and a delight in the original intent of the Sabbath. Isaiah 58 evinces the need for the people of God to reevaluate their relationship with both God and their fellow man. Additionally, it reiterates an ongoing message in Isaiah’s prophetic discourse; God desires obedience rather than sacrifice.

Matthew 22:37-40 states the entirety of the Law and the Prophets hinges on loving God and loving others. The Isaiah 58:1-14 pericope reveals that attempts to manipulate God through selfishly motivated acts of piety, while having the appearance of probity, are repulsive to God. As noted by John Walton, the Israelite’s attempts at godliness were “selfish and oppressive. Instead of their religion making them a blessing to those around them, as God intended it made them a curse.” As such, their devotion was nothing more than a verisimilitude preventing God from pouring out his justice and mercy on them. Ironically, it was God’s blessings which Israel hoped to acquire through means of their cultic expressions. In order for Israel to experience the covenant blessings and thus enjoy Sabbath rest, a paradigm shift was required. But wait, there’s more!

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Michael Boling – Isaiah 58 and the Observance of the Sabbath

quotescover-JPG-41 What is the Sabbath and why does the mention of that word cause such a stir at times among Christians? Dare mention observing the Sabbath and you are almost immediately declared to be trying to earn your way into heaven. Is such a response to the Sabbath biblically valid? Is a day dedicated to the worship of God something that disappeared after the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ? Are we truly down to only 9 commandments or is the Sabbath not really a day set aside each week, but rather a mere spiritual exercise noted by the often repeated statement that Jesus is my rest. These are all questions I have been pondering for some time, even more intensely as I have worked my way through the books of the Law, Job, Joshua, and now Judges.

In an effort to determine where the church is at theologically with the Sabbath, I have read a number of books of late specifically dedicated to this subject matter. My focus has not been on the argument over what day the Sabbath should be observed (although I certainly have stronger thoughts on that issue as a result of my studies), but rather on the construct of the Sabbath, why God repeats the command to observe the Sabbath, when it was established, and is the Sabbath something that dropped off God’s radar.

Two books I have read recently that have been rather helpful in most regards have been Walter Chantry’s “Call the Sabbath a Delight”, D. Thomas Lancaster’s “Restoration: Returning the Torah of God to the Disciples of Jesus “, and Ryan McGraw’s “The Day of Worship: Reassessing the Christian Life in Light of the Sabbath”. Along with those books, I have been reviewing a number of other resources as well to try and get a clear picture of the variety of positions and most importantly, digging down to a firm biblical position on the Sabbath, devoid as much as possible of all the presuppositions we all bring to this subject.

The issue of presuppositions is arguably the hardest part of studying an issue such as the Sabbath. As I noted in the introduction, the term Sabbath has fallen on hard times of late. Furthermore, Sabbath is often prefaced with either the term “Jewish” in writings of those who advocate the Sabbath is no longer a relevant command for New Testament believers, or prefaced with the term “Christian” by those who feel the actual day of observance has shifted or the observance of the Sabbath has been altered to the point where it is more of a spiritual concern, rather than a specific day of the week to be observed.

The authors of the books I noted earlier all approach the Sabbath from different perspectives. All three authors advocate for the continued importance of the Sabbath; however, how the Sabbath should be observed varies somewhat in their positions as well as their statements and support for the actual day of remembrance each week, namely the conversation over Saturday or Sunday. Again, my focus on this point is not the latter issue, but rather getting to the heart of whether the Sabbath remains a valid concern for the New Testament believer and if so, what should we be doing to remain faithful to God’s commands in this area of our walk with Him.

I am more convinced than ever that the Sabbath remains a valid command to be obeyed by the New Testament believer. One point that McGraw brought up in this book is something I think many theologians and laymen overlook regarding the Sabbath – It is a creation ordinance. As such, it was not created by God at Mt. Sinai. Conversely, God elaborated on His expectations for observing the Sabbath at Mt. Sinai; however, the establishment of the Sabbath as a day ordained by God as holy took place long before Moses or Israel or the “Church” came on the scene. This means the argument that the Sabbath is solely connected to the Mosaic Law and thus has been abrogated by the coming of Christ truly falls short when Sabbath as a creation ordinance is understood.

Furthermore, it is vital to grasp the purpose of the Sabbath and why God was so concerned with His people (Israel and by extension New Testament believers) as well observing this holy day each and every week. Quite frankly, I am a bit shocked that many believers balk at the opportunity to spend one day out of seven focused on God. If anything, this is a chance to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the work week and to devote a specific and dedicated day to worshiping the gracious God who gives us life, sustains us, and delivered us from bondage. After all, those were the reasons He gave the people of Israel for observing the Sabbath. God did not need to rest from His creative efforts in Genesis. He is God and thus does not grow weary. This day was established as an important pattern of life built into the operation of creation itself. As McGraw aptly notes, “The Sabbath is a part of the world God has created. To trample it underfoot is to declare that we would overturn the weekly order that God has woven into the very fiber of creation. Sabbath-keeping is as integral to man’s life as marriage and labor. To violate ordinances that predate and stand apart from the Fall, and even from redemption in Christ, is to attack the authority of God as our creator in the most fundamental sense.”[1] Strong words that might raise eyebrows with some; however, when viewed in light of the establishment of the Sabbath at creation and God’s repeated command to observe the Sabbath as holy, the truth of McGraw’s statement is really undeniable. Also of note is McGraw is approaching the Sabbath from a Reformed Theological perspective so any accusations of him being a Seventh Day Adventist fall short of any validity.

Another point of interest is the sheer number of times keeping the Sabbath is mentioned in the Old Testament. It is well known that when a speaker or writer repeats something, it is usually worth taking note of what is being repeated. The Hebrew term for Sabbath used in the Old Testament can be found in at a minimum, 159 verses. Of course the majority of those can be found in the books of the Law; however, it must be noted an equally significant number of passages mentioning the Sabbath are found in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. This should tell us something right off the bat, namely that God desired His people to remember the Sabbath. This was no passing fancy with God. The observation of the Sabbath was connected with the blessings gained from obedience to God’s commands. To neglect or reject the Sabbath was one of the main reasons for the removal of Israel and Judah from the land of promise. This begs the question then as to why the Sabbath is far too often viewed as the step-child of the 10 Commandments, something no longer relevant this side of the cross and moreover, why “Jewish” or “Christian” is attached to Sabbath in an attempt to alter somewhat the purpose and relevance of this important holy day to be observed each week?

It seems important to point out that it is to be a Sabbath day, not a Sabbath hour in a church building or 90 minutes for those who attend a bit longer service. Furthermore, this was not intended to be a day to kick back on the couch for an extended snooze while watching the weekend sports game of interest. The crux of this element of the discussion is rooted in how one approaches a passage such as Isaiah 58:13-14:

“If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure,or talking idly; 14 then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

This is a very interesting passage on a number of levels. First is the description of calling the Sabbath a delight. For those who declare the law of God to be a burden, perhaps they should take note that God calls the Sabbath as something His people for which His people should take great delight. Also of note is this holy day is to be viewed as honorable. The term translated as honorable is the Hebrew verb kabad meaning “be rich, be honorable, be glorious”, a word that also notes the importance and weight of what is to be observed. This demonstrates the Sabbath is not like all the other days of the week. God placed a heavy level and weight of importance on this seventh day.

The concept of turning your foot from the Sabbath speaks to the repeated command in Scripture to God’s people of keeping all of God’s commands, specifically the command to not turn to the right or to the left when observing all God has commanded. Since the Sabbath is a command of God, this means by definition we are to not turn our feet from the Sabbath. Turning your feet is indicative of an attitude of rejection by your actions a command of God. Turning your face from God’s commands is akin to turning your back on God. We are called to seek the face of God, His paniym (face) to our paniym (face) meaning to turn your feet directs your face away from God and by extension from His commands.

As we continue to analyze this passage, we see the command to do God’s pleasure on His holy day. What pleases God? Since the actions we are to be doing on His Sabbath should be those that please God, it is important to see what Scripture says pleases our God. In Psalm 19:14, we see the Psalmist declaring “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” He certainly had a desire for his words and his heart to be found acceptable and pleasing to God. Psalm 104:34 states “May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord.” So we can discern that a focus on God is pleasing to Him. Psalm 69:30-31 sheds even more light on what is pleasing to God by noting “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving. This will please the Lord more than an ox or a bull with horns and hoofs.” Praising God in song and magnifying His name clearly pleases the Lord. An interesting passage is Psalm 149:4 which says “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation.” God takes pleasure most certainly in a humble heart, but He also takes pleasure in his people, a phrase that seems to me to speak of relationship. Throughout Scripture we find descriptions of people finding favor with God because they walked with God in an intimate relationship. So what is a definition of relationship? Can one have a relationship with a person, meaning an intimate personal relationship without spending consistent and quality time with that person? The answer is really no so what makes us think we can have a relationship with our God apart from consistent and quality time spent with Him? The Sabbath is provided by God as a dedicated time each week to spend with Him and we are told in Isaiah 58 and the other passages noted that what pleases God is His people praising Him, walking with Him, and having relationship with Him, all things to be done every day, but with a more focused effort on the Sabbath.

Honoring the Sabbath is also stated as involving the cessation of going your own way, seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly. I have to give credit to McGraw for drawing out quite well the meaning of these ideas. Our understanding of these concepts will go a long way to our understanding of what God expects us to be involved with on the Sabbath. The idea of rest on the Sabbath I firmly believe is greatly misunderstood. It has often been used as an excuse to have a day off from the work that pays the bills in order to address all those household chores that pile up over the course of the week or to again, kick back on the couch to watch your favorite movie or sports team. Scripture has made it quite clear that what we do on the Sabbath is to be devoted to that which pleases God and we have established what Scripture says pleases God. This of course begs the question as to where personal pursuits such as mowing the lawn, painting a room, building a deck, the pursuit of sports of other things of a personal matter fit into that construct. Honestly, I cannot see where they do fit.

This does not mean that God is not honored by our use of the talents He has given us (i.e. athletic, artistic, etc.). He is most certainly honored when we use those gifts to His glory. When it comes to a holy day such as the Sabbath, the bar is raised. Those personal pursuits are to be put aside with the focus being a day devoted to the worship of God and spending time in relationship with Him and His Word. Frankly, spending one day out of seven focused on such things is not too much to ask. It may involve some changes, perhaps large scale changes in how we operate and live each week, but since God has commanded us to observe His holy day in a way that He desires, and since we should find delight in keeping the Sabbath, making those changes should be something that in turn brings us joy. Why? By observing the Sabbath and spending with God we are bringing Him pleasure and glory. The Westminster Confession of Faith declares “Man’s chief end is to glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31), and to enjoy him forever.” We bring glory to God by observing His Sabbath in the way He has commanded and we are commanded to enjoy the Sabbath as an everlasting ordinance. It seems to me that will address both issues noted in that section of the Westminster Confession.

Finally, the if/then construct of Isaiah 58:13-14 is worth noting. Such statements reveal that when something is doing and only when something is done, then a result will follow. There are good and bad results that follow an “if” statement. For example, we find throughout Scripture that if God’s people obey, then they will be blessed. We also find the opposite. If God’s people disobey, then there will be consequences. In the Isaiah 58 passage, we are told that if we observe the Sabbath in the manner God designed and find delight in it by honoring God’s holy day, then God will make His people “ride on the heights of the earth” and then He “will feed you with the heritage of Jacob.” The cart cannot come before the horse. If God’s people observe the Sabbath, the result is blessing, the blessing of a growth in love and relationship with God.

Some may wonder why make such a big deal out of something that is not of salvific importance. After all, our salvation is not rooted in whether we observe the Sabbath, right? I would answer in response that our approach to the Sabbath is not a salvation issue, but it is an obedience issue. Faith without works (obedience) is dead faith. On the other side of the issue is the reality that observing the Sabbath does not bring one salvation. However, we are to be an obedient people. We are to be obedient because we are so in love with the God who bestowed us His grace and has called us His own that every fiber of our being yearns to respond to that grace and calling in loving obedience. Jesus observed the Sabbath. The early church observed the Sabbath. Somewhere throughout the years it has been decided this holy day set apart by God is just something spiritual and not an actual day or that we have been set free from having to observe it, despite such a suggestion being found absolutely nowhere in Scripture. Sorry folks, Colossians 2:16 is not a declaration of freedom from observing God’s Sabbath day. That passage has been abused in its attempted use to abrogate the observance of the Sabbath far too long. In fact, Paul is declaring quite the opposite, noting the need to ignore those who judge based on what you eat, drink, or the festivals you observe, with a reminder not that they should not be observed, but rather as a reminder of their purpose, namely pointing to Christ. In the observation of such things, we can see how they point to Christ and in observing them, we can grow in relationship with God, regardless of whether some may think we are off our rocker as believers for when it comes to walking obedience in this case in observing God’s holy day of the Sabbath. For that matter, those who claim the Feasts of the Lord were just “Jewish exercises” that have no relevance for us today need to also rethink their approach to Colossians 2:16. An everlasting ordinance is just that…an everlasting ordinance.

This has been somewhat of a long post, but that is because there is so much material to cover when it comes to what Scripture says about the Sabbath. I have touched on only a blip of what could be addressed. As I continue to study and focus on this subject as I work my way through Scripture and as I continue to read the history of theological thought on the Sabbath, I will continue to share my thoughts. I affirm the words of Joshua when he declared, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” I trust you will pray about how you have approached the Lord’s Day, His holy Sabbath. Implement ways in your weekly schedule to accomplish the day to day chores and necessities of life so you can leave the Sabbath day in dedication to worshiping God. View the Sabbath as more than spending an hour in a pew in a gathering with fellow believers. Begin to understand the Sabbath as an entire day when you get the opportunity to worship God. This should be an exciting day, one we look forward to each week with great anticipation.

More to come…

[1] Ryan McGraw, The Day of Worship: Reassessing the Christian Life in Light of the Sabbath (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 10.

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